Chapter XVIII. Just in Time.
 

"I shall go straight back to Vittoria, Sam. By what they say, General Reynier is in command there, and as it was through his wife that all this terrible business has come about, we have a right to expect him to do his best to get us out of it. I will start at once. Now look here, Sam. You must put yourself where you can keep watch over the village. If you see any party come in, either to-night or to-morrow, you must try and discover if Peter is among them. If he is, light a fire down in that hollow where it can't be seen from above, but where we can see it on that road. It's twenty miles to Vittoria; if I can get to see General Reynier to-morrow, I may be back here with cavalry by night; if he is out or anything prevents it, I will be here next night, as soon after dusk as it will be safe. I will dismount the men and take them over the hill, so as to avoid the sentinel who is sure to be posted on the road when Nunez arrives. If they come in the afternoon, Sam, and you find that anything is going to be done at once, do everything you can to delay matters."

"All right, Massa Tom, if, when you come back you find Massa Peter dead, you be berry sure you find dis chile gone down too."

It was seven o'clock next morning when Tom entered Vittoria, and a few cautious inquiries proved the fact that General Reynier was really in command of the French division there. He at once sought his head-quarters, and after some talk with a woman selling fruit near the house, heard that the general and his staff had started at daybreak, but whither of course she knew not. Tom hesitated for some time, and then, seeing an officer standing at the door, went up to him and asked if the general would be back soon.

"He will be back in an hour or two," the officer replied in Spanish, "but it is no use your waiting to see him. He has his hands full and can't be bothered with petitions as to cattle stolen or orchards robbed. Wait till we have driven the English back, and then we shall have time to talk to you."

"Your pardon," Tom said humbly. "It is not a complaint that I have to make, it is something of real importance which I have to communicate to him."

"You can tell me, I am Colonel Decamps; it will be all the same thing if your news is really important."

"Thank you very kindly, senor, it must be the general himself; I will wait here." Thereupon Tom sat down with his back to the wall a short distance off, pulled out some bread and fruit he had bought in the town, and began quietly to eat his breakfast. An hour later a pretty carriage with two fine horses drew up to the door. It was empty, and was evidently intended for some one in the house. Suddenly, the thought flashed across his mind, perhaps Madame Reynier and her child were there. It was curious that the thought had not occurred to him before, but it had not, and he drew near, when a sentry at the door roughly ordered him to stand further back. Presently a lady came to the door, accompanied by a little girl. There she stood for a minute talking with the officer with whom Tom had spoken. At the moment a young officer passed Tom on his way to the house.

"Monsieur," Tom said, in French, "do me the favor to place that ring in the hands of Madame Reynier. It is a matter of life and death. She will recognize the ring, it is her own," he added, as the young officer in surprise hesitated. He was a bright handsome young fellow, and after a moment's, pause, he went up to the lady. "My dear aunt," he said, "here is a mystery. An old Spanish beggar speaks French, not very good French, but enough to make out, and he begs me to give you this ring, which he says is yours, and which, by the way, looks a valuable one." Madame Reynier, in some surprise, held out her hand for the ring. "It is not mine," she began, when a sudden thought struck her, and turning it round she saw "a Louise Reynier, tumors reconnaissance," which she had had engraved on it, before giving it to Tom. "Who gave it to you, Jules?" she asked eagerly.

"That old pedler," Jules said.

"Bring him in," Madame Reynier said, "the carriage must wait; I must speak to him and alone."

"My dear aunt," began her nephew.

"Don't be afraid, Jules, I am not going to run away with him, and if you are a good boy you shall know all about it afterwards, wait here, Louise, with your cousin;" and beckoning to Tom to follow her, she went into the house, the two officers looking astounded at each other as the supposed Spanish pedler followed her into her sitting-room.

"What is your message?" she asked.

Tom's answer was to remove his wide hat, wig, and beard.

"Himself!" Madame Reynier exclaimed, "my preserver," and she held out both her hands to him. "How glad I am, but oh! how foolish to come here again, and--and"--she hesitated at the thought that he, an English spy, ought not to come to her, the wife of a French general.

Tom guessed her thought. "Even General Reynier might succor us without betraying the interests of his country. Read that, madame; it is an open letter," and he handed her Lord Wellington's letter.

She glanced through it and turned pale. "Your brother! is he in the hands of the guerillas? Where? How?"

"He is in the hands of that scoundrel Nunez; he swore he would be revenged for that day's work, and he has had Peter carried off. No doubt to kill him with torture."

"Oh! and it is through me," Madame Reynier exclaimed, greatly distressed. "What can we do! Please let me consult with my friends, every soldier shall be at your service," and she opened the door. "Colonel Deschamps, Jules, come here directly, and bring Louise with you." These officers, on entering, were struck dumb with astonishment on finding a young peasant instead of an old pedler, and at seeing tears standing in Madame Reynier's eyes. "Louise," she said to her daughter, "look at this gentleman, who is he?"

The child looked hard at Tom; he was dressed nearly as when she first saw him--and as he smiled she recognized him. "Oh, it is the good boy!" she cried, and leaped into Tom's arms, and kissed him heartily.

"Do you think we have gone mad, Jules, Louise and I? This is one of the young English officers who saved our lives, as you have often heard me tell you."

Jules stepped forward, and shook Tom's hand heartily, but Colonel Deschamps looked very serious. "But, madame," he began, "you are wrong to tell me this."

"No, Colonel;" Madame Reynier said, "here is a letter, of which this gentleman is the bearer, from Lord Wellington himself, vouching for him, and asking for the help of every Frenchman."

Colonel Deschamps read it, and his brow cleared, and he held out his hand to Tom. "Pardon my hesitation, sir," he said in Spanish; "but I feared that I was placed in a painful position, between what I owe to my country, and what all French soldiers owe to you, for what you did for Madame Reynier. I am, indeed, glad to find that this letter absolves me from the former duty, and leaves me free to do all I can to discharge the latter debt. Where is your brother, and why has he been carried off? I have known hundreds of our officers assassinated by these Spanish wolves, but never one carried away. An English officer, too, it makes it the more strange!"

Tom now related the story of Peter's abduction; the previous attempts of members of Nunez's band to assassinate them, and the reasons he had for believing that Peter was close to, if not already at, the headquarters of that desperado.

"Is he still there?" Jules asked. "We routed him out directly the general came up here. My aunt declared herself bound by a promise, and would give us no clue as to the position of the village, but he had made himself such a scourge, that there were plenty of others ready to tell; if we had known the roads, we would have killed the whole band, but unfortunately they took the alarm and made off. So he has gone back there again. Ah! there is the general."

Madame Reynier went out to meet her husband, and drawing him aside into another room, explained the whole circumstance to him, with difficulty detaining him long enough to tell her story, as the moment he found that his wife and child's deliverer was in the next room, he desired to rush off to see him. The story over, he rushed impetuously into the room, where Tom was explaining his plans to his French friends, seized him in his arms, and kissed him on both cheeks, as if he had been his son.

"I have longed for this day!" he said, wiping his eyes. "I have prayed that I might some day meet you, to thank you for my wife and child, who would have been lost to me, but for you. And now I hear your gallant brother is paying with his life for that good deed. Tell me what to do, and if necessary I will put the whole division at your orders."

"I do not think that he will have above fifty men with him, general; say eighty, at the outside. Two squadrons of cavalry will be sufficient. They must dismount at the bottom of the hill, and I will lead them up. We must not get within sight of the hill till it is too dark for their look-out to see us, or the alarm would be given, and we should catch no one. We shall know if they have arrived, by a fire my man is to light. If they have not come, then I would put sentries on guard upon every road leading there, and search every cart that comes up; they are sure to have got him hid under some hay, or something of that sort, and there are not likely to be more than two or three men actually with it, so as not to attract attention. It will be all right if they do not arrive there to-day."

"It is about five hours' ride for cavalry," the general said, "that is at an easy pace; it will not be dark enough to approach the hill without being seen till eight o'clock. Two squadrons shall be paraded here at three o'clock. I will go with you myself; yes, and you shall go too, Jules," he said, in answer to an anxious look from his nephew. "In the mean time you can lend our friend some clothes; you are about the same size."

"Come along," Jules said laughing; "I think we can improve your appearance," and, indeed, he did so, for in half an hour Tom returned looking all over a dashing young French hussar, and little Louise clapped her hands and said--

"He does look nice, mamma, don't he? Why can't he stay with us always, and dress like that? and we know he's brave, and he would help papa and Jules to kill the wicked English."

There was a hearty laugh, and Jules was about to tell her that Tom was himself one of the wicked English, but Madame Reynier shook her head, for, as she told him afterwards, it was as well not to tell her, for little mouths would talk, and there was no occasion to set everyone wondering and talking about the visit of an English officer to General Reynier. "There is no treason in it, Jules, still one does not want to be suspected of treason, even by fools."

Sam watched all night, without hearing any sound of vehicles, but in the morning he saw that several more guerillas had come in during the night. In the morning parties of twos and threes began to come in from the direction of Vittoria, and it was evident from the shouting and noise in the village that these brought satisfactory news of some kind. In the afternoon most of them went out again in a body to the wood at the foot of the hill, and soon afterwards Sam saw a cart coming along across the plain. Two men walked beside it, and Sam could see one, if not two more perched upon the top of the load. Three others walked along at a distance of some fifty yards ahead, and as many more at about the same distance behind. He could see others making their way through the fields. "Dis berry bad job," Sam said to himself; "me berry much afraid dat Massa Tom he not get back in time. Der's too many for Sam to fight all by himself, but he must do someting." Whereupon Sam set to to think with all his might, and presently burst into a broad grin. "Sure enough dat do," he said; "now let me arrange all about what dey call de pamerphernalia." First, he emptied out the contents of a couple of dozen pistol cartridges; he wetted the powder and rolled it up in six cartridges, like squibs, three short ones and three much longer. Then he opened Tom's kit, and took out a small box of paints, which Tom had carried with him for making dark lines on his face, and in other ways to assist his disguise. Taking some white paint, Sam painted his eyelids up to his eyebrows, and a circle on his cheeks, giving the eyes at a short distance the appearance of ghastly saucers.

"Dat will do for de present," he said; "now for business. If dey wait till it get dark, all right; if not, Sam do for Nunez and two or three more, and den go down with Massa Peter!"

Then carefully examining the priming of the pair of pistols, which he carried--the very pistols given to Peter by the passengers of the Marlborough coach--he prepared to set out.

It was now six o'clock, and he calculated that the waggon would by this time have mounted the hill, and reached the village; he had already collected a large heap of dry sticks and some logs, at the point Tom had pointed out, these he now lit, and then started for the top of the hill. Looking back, just as he reached the crest, he could see, knowing where it was, a very light smoke curling up over a clump of trees which intervened between him and the fire, but it was so slight that he was convinced that it would not be noticed by an ordinary observer. Sam saw at once, on reaching the top of the hill, that the guerillas were crowded round the waggon, which stood at the edge of a small clump of trees in the middle of the village. The moment was favourable, and he at once started forward, sometimes making a detour, so as to have the shelter of a tree, sometimes stooping behind a low stone wall, until he reached the first house in the village. It was now comparatively easy work, for there were enclosures and walls, the patches of garden-ground were breast-high with weeds, and, stooping and crawling, Sam soon reached a house close to the waggon. It was a mere hut, and had not been repaired. The roof was gone, but the charred shutters and doors still hung on their hinges. It was the very place from which to see without being seen. Sam entered by a door from behind, and found that, through a slight opening in the window-shutter, he could see all that was going on. Some fifty guerillas were standing or sitting in groups at a distance of twenty yards.

In the centre of the groups, lying on the ground, was a figure which he at once recognized as Peter. It was wound round and round with ropes; beside it stood, or rather danced, Nunez pouring forth strings of abuse, of threats, and of curses, and enforcing them with repeated kicks at the motionless figure.

"De debil!" muttered Sam, "me neber able to stand dis. If you not stop dat, Massa Nunez, me put a bullet through dat ugly head of yours, as sure as you stand dere. But me mustn't do it till last ting; for, whether I kill him or not, it's all up with Massa Peter and me if I once fire."

Fortunately Nunez was tired, and in a short time he desisted, and threw himself down on the ground. "Take off his ropes, one of you," he said: "there would be no fear of his running away had he three or four days to live, instead of as many hours. Take the gag out of his mouth, throw some water over him to bring him round, and pour some wine down his throat. I want him to be fresh, so as to be able to enjoy the pleasure we have in store for him. And now let's have dinner."

Sam felt that for another hour at least Peter was safe, and therefore, with the same precaution as before, he crept away from his hiding-place, through the village, and over the hill-crest, to the place where he had made his fire. The logs were burning well, but gave out but little smoke. Sam looked at the sky. "Dusk cum on berry fast," he said; "another hour Massa Tom come on with soldiers. If he see fire, he hurry up sharp." So saying, Sam heaped on a pile of wood, and then made his way back. He knew that Tom would not approach until it was too dark for the movements of the troops to be seen by the look-outs, and that he could not be expected to reach the village until fully an hour after dark. "Just another hour and a half," he said to himself; "ebery thing depend upon what happen before dat time." It was quite dusk before he regained the shelter of the cottage. He had gone round by the wagon, and had taken from it a large stable-fork, muttering as he did so. "Golly! dis de berry ting." Close by he saw the carcase of a bullock which the guerillas had just slaughtered, and from this he cut off the horns and tail.

When Sam peeped out through the shutter he saw that something was going to be done. Nunez was sitting smoking a cigarette, with a look of savage pleasure in his face, while the men heaped up a large fire in front of the trees.

"I don't like dat gentleman's look," Sam said to himself. "It's time dis chile begin to dress for de pantomime, dat quite plain. Massa Tom get here too late." Thus saying, Sam began to deliberately undress.

Peter, his arms and feet still bound, was sitting with his back against a tree, watching what were, he was convinced, the preparations for his death. For the last ten days he had lived in a sort of confused and painful dream. From the moment, when, upon entering his room two hands suddenly gripped his throat, others thrust a gag in the mouth, and then blindfolded him, while some one from behind lashed his arms to his side, and then altogether, lifting him like a log, carried him downstairs and threw him into a cart, he had not till now seen anything. The bandage had never been removed from his eyes, or the cords from his limbs. Sometimes he had been made to sit up, and soup and wine had been poured down his throat, or a piece of bread thrust into his mouth; then he had been again gagged and thrown into a cart. Over him brushwood and fagots had been piled, and there he had lain, until at night a stop was made, when he was taken out, fed, and then thrust back again and covered over.

From the first he had never doubted who were his captors, or what was his destination, and he therefore experienced no surprise whatever, when, on his arrival at the village, on the bandage being taken off his eyes, he saw where he was. That it was useless to beg for mercy of the savages into whose power he had fallen he knew well enough, and he looked as calm and indifferent, as if he did not hear a word of the threats and imprecations which Nunez was heaping on him.

"You see that fire," the enraged guerilla said, "there you shall be roasted! English pig that you are! But not yet. That were too quick a death! Here," he said to his followers, "make a little fire by the side of the big one--there under the arm of that tree; and put on plenty of green leaves: we will smoke our pig a bit before we roast him!"

Peter still eyed him unflinchingly. He was determined that no pain should wring a complaint or prayer for mercy. Even now he did not quite despair, for he thought that he had just one chance of life. He was sure that Tom would move heaven and earth to save him. He reckoned that he would at once guess who had carried him off, and with what object; and he felt that Tom would be certain to set off to his rescue. All this he had reflected over in his long days of weary suffering, and from the moment that he was unbandaged, and propped against the tree, he had listened attentively for any unusual sound. How Tom could rescue him he did not see. He was so utterly crippled, from his long confinement, that he knew that it would be hours, perhaps days, before he could walk a step; yet, still he thought it possible that Tom might try; and he feared more than he hoped, for he trembled lest, if Tom were really there, that he would do some rash thing, which would involve him in his fate. "Whether Tom is here or not," Peter thought as he looked unflinchingly at Nunez, "one thing is certain, if I know my brother, you will not have many days to live after me, for Tom will follow you all over Spain, but he will avenge me at last!" Such were Peter's thoughts, and so likely did he think it that Tom was present, that he was scarcely surprised when he heard, as from the ground behind him, a well-known voice.

"Massa Peter, you keep up your heart. Sam here, Massa Tom he be here in another half hour with French soldiers. If dey go to kill you before dat, Sam play dem trick. Can you run, Massa Peter, if I cut de cord?"

"No, Sam."

"Dat bad job. Neber mind, Massa Peter, you keep up your heart. Sam keep quiet as long as he can, but when de worst come Sam do de trick all right."

"Don't show yourself, Sam. It would only cost you your life, and couldn't help me; besides, it would put them on their guard. They won't kill me yet. They will smoke me, and so on, but they will make it last as long as they can."

Peter was able to say this, for at the moment Nunez was occupied in rolling and lighting a second cigarette. Peter received no answer, for Sam, seeing some guerillas bringing sticks and leaves to make a fire, as Nunez, had ordered, crept back again into the deep shadow behind. The fire was now giving out volumes of smoke, a guerilla climbed up the tree and slung a rope over it, and three others approached Peter. His heart beat rapidly; but it was with hope, not fear. He knew, from the words of Nunez, that at present he was not going to be burned, but, as he guessed, to be hung over the smoke until he was insensible, and then brought to life again with buckets of water, only to have the suffocation repeated, until it pleased Nunez to try some fresh mode of torture.

It was as he imagined. The rope was attached to his legs, and amid the cheers of the guerillas, two men hauled upon the other end until Peter swung, head downwards, over the fire. There was no flame, but dense volumes of pungent smoke rose in his face. For a moment his eyes smarted with agony, then a choking sensation seized him, his blood seemed to rush into his head, and his veins to be bursting: and there was a confused din in his ears and a last throb of pain, and then he was insensible.

"That's enough for the present," Nunez said; "cut him down."

The men advanced to do so, but paused, with astonishment, for from behind the great fire was a loud yell--"Yah, yah, yah!"--each louder than the last, and then, leaping through the flames appeared, as they supposed, the devil. Sam's appearance was indeed amply sufficient to strike horror in the minds of a band of intensely superstitious men. He had entirely stripped himself, with the exception of his sandals, which he had retained in order to be able to run freely; on his head were two great horns; in one hand he held a fork, and in the other what appeared to be his tail, but which really belonged to the slaughtered bullock. From his month, his horns, and the end of his tail poured volumes of fire, arising, it needs not to say, from the squibs he had prepared. The great white circles round the eyes added to the ghastliness of his appearance, and seeing the terrible figure leap apparently from the flames, it is no wonder that a scream of terror rose from the guerillas. Whatever a Spanish peasant may believe about saints and angels, he believes yet more implicitly in a devil. Black, with horns, and a tail--and here he was--with these appendages tipped with fire! Those who were able turned and fled in terror, those who were too frightened to run fell on their knees and screamed for mercy, while one or two fell insensible from fear. Taking the squibs from his mouth, and giving one more startling yell, to quicken the fugitives, Sam made two strides to where Peter was hanging, cut the rope, and lowered him down.

Nunez had at first joined in the flight, but looking over his shoulder he saw what Sam was doing. His rage and frenzy, at the thought of being cheated of his victim, even by the evil one himself, overcame his fear, and he rushed back, shouting, "He is mine! He is mine! I won't give him to you!" and fired a pistol almost in Sam's face. The ball carried away a portion of one of Sam's ears, and with a yell, even more thrilling than those he had given before, he plunged his pitchfork into the body of the guerilla, then, exerting all his immense strength, he lifted him upon it, as if he had been a truss of straw, took three steps to the great bonfire and cast the brigand into it.

There was a volume of sparks, a tumbling together of big logs, and the most cruel of the Spanish guerillas had ceased to exist.

This awful sight completed the discomfiture of the guerillas--some hearing their chief's shouts and the sound o his pistol had looked round, but the sight of the gigantic fiend casting him into the fire was too much for them. With cries of horror and fear they continued their flight; a few of them, who had fallen on their knees, gained strength enough, from fear, to rise and fly; the rest lay on their faces. Sam saw that for the present all was clear, and lifting up Peter's still insensible body, as if it had no weight whatever, he turned and went at a brisk trot out of the village, then over the crest and down towards the fire.

Then he heard a ring of metal in front of him, and a voice said, "Qui vive!" while another voice said, "Is that you, Sam?"

"Bress de Lord! Massa Tom, dis is me sure enough: and what is much better, here is Massa Peter."

"Thank God!" Tom said fervently. "Is he hurt? Why don't you speak, Peter?"

"He all right, Massa Tom. He talk in a minute or two. Now smoke choke him, he better presently. Here, massa, you take him down to fire, pour a little brandy down his throat. Now, massa officer, I lead de way back to village."

As Tom took Peter in his arms a sudden fire of musketry was heard down on the road.

"Our fellows have got them," Jules said. "I don't know what has alarmed them, but they are running away!"

"Push forward," General Reynier said, "and give no quarter! Jules, keep by the negro, and see that he comes to no harm. The men might mistake him for a guerilla."

The night was pitch dark, and the extraordinary appearance of Sam could not be perceived until after scouring the village and shooting the few wretches whom they found there, they gathered round the fire. Before reaching it, however, Sam had slipped away for a moment into the hut where he had stripped; here he quickly dressed himself, removed the paint from his face, and rejoined the group, who were not a little surprised at seeing his black face.

In a short time the parties who had been posted on all the various roads came in, and it was found that they had between them killed some thirty or forty of the brigands, and had brought in two or three prisoners.

"Have you killed or taken Nunez?" General Reynier asked. "Our work is only half done if that scoundrel has escaped."

"I have asked the prisoners," one of the officers said, "and they tell an extraordinary story, that the devil has just thrown him into the fire!"

"What do they mean by such folly as that," the general asked angrily. "Were they making fun of you?"

"No, sir, they were certainly serious enough over it, and they were all running for their lives when they fell into our hands; they had been horribly frightened at something."

"Ask that fellow there," the general said, pointing to a prisoner who had been brought in by another detachment, "he cannot have spoken to the others."

The man was brought forward, and then Jules asked him in Spanish: "What were you all running away for?"

The man gave a glance of horror at the fire. "The devil came with his pitchfork, fire came out of his mouth, his tail and his horns were tipped with sparks, the captain fired at him, of course the bullet did no good, and the devil put his fork into him, carried him to the fire, and threw him in."

Jules and some of the other young officers burst out laughing, but the general said:--

"Humph! We can easily prove a portion of the story. See if there are any human remains in that fire."

The wind was blowing the other way, but as a sergeant went up to the fire in obedience to the general's order, he said:--

"There is a great smell of burnt flesh here, and, sapristi, yes," as he tossed over the logs with his foot "there is a body here, sir, pretty well burnt up."

"It's a curious story," the general said. "Where is that negro, perhaps he can enlighten us?"

But Sam had already left to look after Peter.

"Jules, put these fellows against that wall and give them a volley, then march the men down to the wood where their horses are. We will bivouac here for the night."

A party now brought up Peter, who had quite come round, but was unable to stand, or indeed to move his arms, so injured was he by the ropes, which had completely cut their way into his flesh. However, he was cheerful and bright, and able really to enjoy the supper which was soon prepared. That done, General Reynier said:--

"Captain Scudamore, will you call your black man when he has finished his supper, which, no doubt, he needs? I want him to tell me what took place before we arrived. The prisoners were full of some cock-and-bull story, that the devil had stuck his fork into their captain and pitched him into the fire, and the story is corroborated, at least to the extent of the fact that, on turning the fire over, we found a body there."

Sam, called and questioned, told the whole story, which Tom translated as he went on to the French officers, and it was received with a chorus of laughter at the thought of the oddity of Sam's appearance, and of the brigands' terror, and with warm admiration for the able stratagem and courage shown by the black.

Tom was delighted, and Peter, who had until now been entirely ignorant of the manner in which he had been saved, feebly pressed Sam's hand and said a few words of gratitude and thanks, which so delighted Sam that he retired to cry quietly.

The next day they moved down to Vittoria, where Peter was tenderly nursed by Madame Reynier. A week later he was fit to sit on horseback, and the next day, after a hearty and affectionate parting, they started to rejoin their own army. Both were now dressed as Spanish gentlemen, and Jules, with four troopers accompanied them as an escort.

They made a long detour to avoid the French army in the field under Clausel, and at last came within sight of the British outposts. Here Jules and his escort halted, and after a warm embrace with the merry young Frenchman, they rode forward, and, after the usual parleying with the pickets, were passed forward to the officer commanding the post. He happened to be well known to them, and after the first surprise, and a few words of explanation, they rode on towards the head-quarters of the army besieging Burgos.